Historian James M. McPherson Discusses his Role as a Historical Consultant on 'Mercy Street'

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Recently, noted Civil War historian James M. McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Battle Cry of Freedom” (1988), visited Binghamton University to deliver the ninth annual Shriber Lecture. Professor McPherson sat down with WSKG History to discuss his career and Civil War history. In this clip from our interview, Professor McPherson discusses his involvement as a historical consultant on PBS’s Civil War medical drama MERCY STREET. MERCY STREET is currently in production on its second season. 

(The partial transcript below has been edited for clarity.)


Highlights from the interview

There were a half-dozen different historical consultants, each of them with a different expertise. My role was, as a Civil War historian, to make sure that they got the references to what was going on in the war… right. So I went carefully through the scripts…[and] pointed out things that I thought were wrong or misleading. There weren’t many actually. And they would email me almost weekly with questions about what was going on in April ‘62 in Virginia… to make sure they got it right…

Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)

Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in ‘Mercy Street’.Courtesy of Antony Platt/PBS.

On exposing TV viewers to new trends in Civil War scholarship

millionpeople_Shane_LThe main focus of the program is on medicine, of course, and on the human impact; the suffering, the dying, the wounds, the diseases… A lot of people know that many soldiers were killed in the Civil War and many others were maimed and had their arms or legs amputated, but… beyond that I don’t think there has been, in the general culture, an understanding of just how serious the impact of the war was.

Over a million people were killed or wounded in the war, and then hundreds of thousands of others suffered from… any number of other kinds of diseases in the war. That’s an important aspect of the general impact of the war in American society, yet sometimes it gets lost in the story of battles and leaders, and the abolition of slavery… So I think it was important to expose a large element of the television watching population to that part of the experience.

On his favorite moment from the first season of ‘Mercy Street’

Mary Phinney and [Dr. Foster] begin to have a great deal of affection for each other, and the scene where she discovers him having injected opium… and lying on the floor, and she says she’s going to help him get over this – I thought that was very moving and powerful and it becomes an important part of the story. Not so much the story of Civil War medicine, but the story of these characters and their personalities.


Dr. James McPherson is the George Henry Davis ‘86 Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Battle Cry of Freedom” (1988). He taught American history at Princeton University for 42 years and served as president of the American Historical Association. McPherson’s work mainly focuses on the American Civil War and Reconstruction and he is the recipient of two separate Lincoln Prizes. His latest book is titled “The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters” (2015).


Want more from our interview with Professor McPherson? Read a partial transcript of highlights from our entire interview.

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